Covering Labor: An interview with Steven Greenhouse, Long Time Labor Reporter for The New York Times

greenhouse head shotSteven Greenhouse has had a distinguished career as a journalist. Trained initially as an attorney, he served as a longtime correspondent for The New York Times. He is perhaps best known as the Times’s senior labor reporter and as the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (Anchor, 2009). Upon announcing his recent decision to step down from his post at the Times, many readers lamented the loss of the nation’s most important reporter on the labor beat –a tribe that some feel has faced major challenges. Work in Progress is pleased to post this interview with Steven Greenhouse, with much gratitude.

You followed an interesting path (journalism school, then the legal profession) before becoming a business and foreign affairs reporter. How did you become a labor reporter?  

While in college, I was forever torn about whether I wanted to be a journalist or a lawyer. After college, I got a Master’s at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and I then worked for three years as a reporter with the Bergen Record in New Jersey, covering economics and labor. I quit that newspaper to attend N.Y.U. Law School, where I studied constitutional law and labor law. While in law school, I concluded that the actual work one does as a journalist is more interesting — and fun – than the work one does as a lawyer so I decided to return to journalism. I felt extremely lucky to land a job as a reporter at the New York Times.

I started at the Times in 1983 as a business reporter, covering steel and other basic industries. At the time, the steel industry was undergoing a wrenching restructuring, and what was happening with workers and labor unions was an important part of that beat. I later became the NYT’s Midwest business correspondent, based in Chicago, and then the paper’s European economics correspondent, based in Paris. After Paris, I moved to Washington, where I first covered economic policy and then the State Department and diplomacy. After two years covering the State Department, I grew eager to return to writing about flesh-and-blood human beings, rather than relatively abstract diplomacy. There was an opening on the labor beat, and I applied for it – that was back in 1995. At the time, several reporter friends advised me that the labor beat was a dying, marginal beat, and I would be foolish to apply for it. But I was confident that “labor” was a beat that would provide many good, important stories—about the state and fate of labor unions, about trends in the workplace, about migrant workers, about the exploitation that some workers faced – for instance, safety violations or off-the-clock work.

In reporting on difficult stories about work, have you encountered very many efforts to shape your reporting on controversial matters, or efforts to rein in any critical writing about employers?

In my 31 years at the New York Times, I never felt efforts to shape my reporting on controversial matters or to rein in any writing critical of employers or unions or politicians or anyone else. Like other Times reporters, I was repeatedly urged by editors to get the story, to be tough and aggressive, to delve as deeply as I could — and to be fair. Sometimes editors would say a draft of a story was off-balance or unfair – perhaps unduly nice or unduly harsh to one party. It could be a union or an employer or a politician or a university president. We would be urged to make sure the story was fair. Just to be clear — a journalist’s story can nail someone to the wall, whether it’s an employer engaged in horrific job safety violations or a labor official embezzling union funds or a politician taking bribes, and still be a very fair story.

As you coursed your way across different fields within journalism, did you observe different subcultures –differences, say, between journalists writing about business or finance, as opposed to people on the labor beat? Do differences like these affect the kind of questions that get asked?

In my decades as a journalist, I have worked with many different types of journalists, many different subcultures of journalists. It goes without saying that reporters who cover the Pentagon or medicine or opera will have a far deeper understanding of their fields than other reporters do, and that they often use a different vocabulary or might see the world differently and might ask different questions from, say, a reporter covering Wall Street or one covering labor. Reporters are humans, and they of course come to their beats with different backgrounds, experiences, preconceptions and prejudices. At the New York Times, my sense is reporters nearly always try to put those preconceptions and prejudices aside to write fair, accurate, probing stories – trying to get it right, trying to be fair, trying to understand and listen to all sides.

Have I encountered some business and banking reporters who were generally more pro-business than other reporters? Of course. Do I also know some business and banking reporters who are far more skeptical, cynical and tough-minded cynical about corporate conduct and banks than most other reporters? Absolutely. Indeed, it is those business and banking reporters who often ask the toughest questions, who break the difficult-to-unearth stories, who break stories about illegal corporate behavior, about accounting fraud. It is these reporters who know how to read a balance sheet and a 10(k) far better than most non-business reporters. Here I think of terrific business reporters like Gretchen Morgenson, Floyd Norris, David Kocieniewski, Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Ben Protess.

As for covering labor, I see that most newspaper reporters who cover labor issues try to do so fairly – although some who write for various website do not hide their tilt in favor of labor. Do some reporters who write about labor have a more skeptical view of, say, teachers unions or the Teamsters union than other reporters? Yes. Do some reporters who write about labor have a more skeptical view than others about Walmart’s assertions that it can’t afford to pay its workers appreciably more? Yes. Reporters like others intelligent people have a range of views.

Once in a blue moon, I see a newspaper reporter improperly inject his or her personal views into a “straight” new story, and when they do, they often get called out on it by editors and readers alike because it is so frowned upon. (Here I should be clear, I’m talking about “quality” newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post – I’m not talking here about the New York Post.)

Remember, journalists like to do good, tough, hard-hitting stories, whether about bankers, union leaders or N.F.L. coaches. Those are the stories that are remembered most, that impress editors and readers most. Most people I know go into journalism with some sense of idealism, eager to use their critical faculties to write intelligent stories. And whether they’re covering banks, labor unions or football teams, not many journalists like to write fawning stories.

You have been described as one of the last labor reporters at a major US news outlet –a point some would say speaks to the withering away of labor journalism. What do you think of the current state of reporting on the workplace today? Should we be concerned that coverage of “labor” seems to be withering away?

I would take issue with the phrase “withering away” of labor reporting. In recent years, ever since the Great Recession began in late 2007, there has been a rebound in the number of labor reporters and the amount of labor coverage. That has been fueled in part by the explosion of news websites. During the Great Recession, with unemployment soaring and millions of workers hurting, many news organizations concluded that what was happening to the nation’s workers, what was happening to labor, was a big story — a story that readers wanted to read, a story that editors felt they would be remiss if they didn’t cover.

But, yes, there has of course been a decline in the number of labor reporters since, say, the 1950’s, when 35 percent of the nation’s workers were in labor unions and Walter Reuther, George Meany and Jimmy Hoffa were household names. Now labor unions are far weaker, there are far fewer strikes each year, and only 11 percent of workers are in unions. The decline of labor unions and strikes has meant a decline in salient, hard news, labor-related stories e.g., strikes against a large company. So it is somewhat understandable that many publications have reduced the number of labor reporters, especially in an era when so many newsrooms have cut their staff by 30 percent or 40 percent.

But in recent years, developments like increased income inequality, the fast-food, Fight for Fifteen movement and Scott Walker’s campaign to weaken public-sector collective bargaining have reminded many editors about the importance of covering labor issues – and made them feel they’d be delinquent if their publications didn’t cover those issues. As I explained in this piece I recently wrote for The Atlantic, there are many good workplace reporters out there, considerably more than just four or five years ago.

And don’t forget, as labor unions have declined in recent decades and as the news media have paid less attention to labor unions, editors and readers have found themselves increasingly interested in and increasingly following other subjects – whether immigration, al Qaeda, the National Football League or celebrity chefs. And publishers and editors with limited resources often deploy their reporters to cover what they think is most important and what they think their readers will be most interested in.

Some critics of the press contend that employer illegality –things like wage theft, health and safety violations, firing for union activity– is woefully underreported. The argument here is that behavior like this has become so commonplace that it’s not really news. Reactions?

It’s hard to say whether wage, safety or other labor violations are underreported by the news media. If I do a 30-minute Nexis search, I don’t doubt that I can pull up 100 good stories written over the past year about wage theft, safety violations, exploitation of immigrant workers, construction workers dying on the job, union supporters being fired. A lot of reporters are hungry for good stories, and if there is one labor beat story that most attracts them, it generally is egregious law-breaking – whether it’s in the form of wage theft or a dozen union supporters being illegally fired. Those stories are often made easy to do and often have a hard news peg when an attorney general or state labor commissioner announces a lawsuit or settlement involving a boatload of wage violations or when OSHA slams a company with a big fine. One can debate whether there could be or should be more coverage of wage theft and safety violations or firings for union activity. I know that the NYT, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the Huffington Post, ProPublica, In These Times, the Nation, all cover these issues quite aggressively. I suspect that these issues get very little coverage in broadcast except on MSNBC.   I would also note that the New York Times on a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 writing about worker deaths and safety violations, and so did the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2009.

When you’re reporting on truly horrible events –a mining disaster, say—are there moments when you’ve really had to struggle to maintain a detached, objective position?

I was personally upset and outraged by three horrific tragedies that occurred in recent years on the Asian subcontinent: the Ali Enterprises fire in Pakistan that killed nearly 300 workers in September 2012, the Tazreen fire in November 2012 that killed 112 Bangladeshi workers, and the Rana Plaza factory building collapse in 2013 that killed more than 1,100 workers in Bangladesh. I was extremely upset about these disasters, and I literally lost sleep over them. I was outraged that these things could still happen a century after the Triangle shirtwaist fire. (Both my grandfathers used to work in New York’s garment industry, and I heard plenty about Triangle while I was growing up.)

But I don’t believe my anger or upset slanted or prejudiced my reporting. I am confident that I was able to remain a fair, objective reporter in researching and reporting on these disasters. I, along with Jim Yardley, Declan Walsh and other reporters at the Times –– backed 150 percent by our editors — were intent on finding out and writing about what had caused such horrific catastrophes, and what responsibility Western companies, whether Walmart, H&M , Sears or Children’s Place, had in allowing these deathtraps to continue in operation, without adequate monitoring and oversight. I think it’s fair to say that we at the NYT did some terrific journalism uncovering what caused those tragedies and explaining how Western apparel companies could have done far more to prevent them. That was the same kind of tough, straight, aggressive reporting that the New York Times has been doing for decades. (And the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, the Associated Press and the Guardian also did an excellent job probing these tragedies.) In writing about Ali Enterprises, Tazreen and Rana Plaza, my colleagues and I were angry and upset, but I don’t believe that prevented us from writing fair stories –indeed it made us all the more eager to ferret out the truth and report it fairly and accurately to our readers.

We at the New York Times must have done something right because we won a Loeb Award – the top award in business journalism – for our coverage of the Rana Plaza disaster.

In The Big Squeeze, you refer to “the rise and fall of the social contract.” Do you see any hope for a new social contract?

I wish I could say I was more optimistic about the likelihood of re-establishing the social contract. But as Thomas Piketty and any number of labor economists and labor relations experts have written, the power dynamic between business and labor is more skewed in favor of business than at any time in at least half a century. I don’t think corporate America, in its powerful perch, is eager to re-establish the generous, social contract that was created in the United States in the years after World War Two.

True, there is more restiveness among workers than there was five and ten years ago, manifested most visibly by the Fight for Fifteen and various worker centers. But the pressure these efforts are bringing to bear is in my view minor compared to what would be needed to get corporate America to come to the table and re-establish a social contract.

The one thing that tilts in favor of re-creating a social contract is that there is far more talk about income inequality and wage stagnation than there was just two or three years ago, there is far more of a sense that something is profoundly broken in the economy. Even Republicans are worrying openly about wage stagnation and income inequality, although I doubt many Republicans will push for raising the minimum wage or making it easier to unionize or increasing taxes on the rich. When I wrote about income inequality and wage stagnation in my book, “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker,” (published by Knopf in 2008), I often felt like a lone voice in the wilderness in discussing these issues. Those issues weren’t really part of the national conversation. So it’s good that there’s now a recognition that these issues, along with the decline of the social contract, are hugely important problems. But I’m not sure whether our political system, dominated as it is by Big Money and Dark Money and billionaire donors, has the will or capacity to come together and take any meaningful steps to raise wages or rebuild the social contract because some very powerful forces seem intent on maintaining the status quo as it is. Some of those powerful forces dislike big government and don’t want government involved in any new, more muscular way to reduce inequality or re-establish a social contract. Obamacare was enacted partly because the social contract to provide health coverage was breaking down between employer and employee – and we all saw how hugely hard that was to enact and how many folks are still pushing to repeal it and undermine it.

Any thoughts you’d like to share about what the job of the journalist will look like in 2025 (assuming…)?

A big subject of discussion among journalists is whether there will still be print newspapers around a decade from now — or whether many newspapers will become 100 percent Web products.  Another big question is with declining advertising revenues, where will the money come from to finance a great newspaper like the New York Times and its great journalism?  Ditto the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, etc.  Also, where will the money come from to finance dozens, indeed hundreds of local news organizations to hold city, county and state officials accountable and to cover state and local news? That is a big question for the future of the fourth estate and the future of our democracy.

Tell us your own plans for the future. Another book? Something else?

I am working on a second book for Knopf, also about the plight facing American workers. In this new book, I plan to look more deeply than I did in “The Big Squeeze” about what can be done to lift the nation’s workers, what out there is working to help improve wages and conditions for American workers. I am also planning to freelance for the New York Times and other publications on labor and other matters. (I left the Times and the job I loved there because I had been working extremely hard for 31 years there and the paper offered its journalists, especially those with more than 20 years’ experience, a very generous buyout. I felt it was time to slow down so I took the buyout.)

I am also deeply disturbed by the way Big Money has come to dominate and distort our political system – and how that often prevents workers, the poor and others who do not have the wherewithal to contribute millions from getting a fair shake in the political system. I think the quality of America’s democracy is deeply endangered by this, and I hope to do some writing on this subject as well. In my view, that is an issue that should concern all Americans.

Follow Steven Greenhouse at @greenhousenyt

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